Sunday 19 January 2020

European gamble an expensive illusion

Shamrock Rovers' magnificent Europa League victory over Bnei Yehuda in Tel Aviv on Thursday night was not just a great achievement by Michael O'Neill and his players, it also saved the League of Ireland's blushes after another underwhelming series of European performances.

The 2-1 aggregate victory is put into context by the fact that in last year's competition, Bnei Yehuda won their way through three qualifying rounds to a final play-off for a place in the Europa League group stages before losing 2-0 to PSV Eindhoven. They belong to a league ranked 17th in Europe by UEFA.

Bohemians' 4-0 trouncing by The New Saints in Wales, however, is as horrendous an achievement as their old rivals' is praiseworthy. Because TNS represent a league which is ranked 46th out of 53 in Europe. You want to know how bad that is? Liechtenstein are ranked 40th, and they don't even have a league because there aren't enough clubs in the country for one.

And where is the League of Ireland? 31st. Between Finland in 30th and Lithuania in 32nd. When you consider that Hungary are 34th, it doesn't look too bad. But when you observe Cyprus lording it over us from the dizzy heights of 20th, it doesn't seem all that great.

The Irish League, by the way, is in 49th place which might give pause for thought to those geniuses who think that domestic soccer's route to eternal salvation lies in an amalgamation with the Serie Z to our North. Bottom of the heap is San Marino, just two places above them is Luxembourg, which places Dundalk's narrow win over Grevemacher in the Europa League first qualifying round in an extremely unflattering light.

We are slipping down the UEFA table, having lost two places since last season. And things will get worse. Because the coefficient which decides these matters is based on the European performances of a league's clubs over five seasons. And next season we will no longer be able to count the anomalously good 2006/'07 season, when Derry City came within a game of reaching the group stages of the UEFA Cup.

The likes of Hungary and Georgia are poised to zoom past us. Because, while Shamrock Rovers' big match against Juventus is a dream come true for the club, it will also result in their inevitable defeat and a consequently poor UEFA ranking for Irish clubs this season.

The irony of it all is that the dream of making the group stages of the European club competitions and reaping the consequent financial rewards was one of the driving factors behind the lunatic expenditure which led Shelbourne, Cork City and Derry City down the road to ruin. One more push, the big spenders reckoned, and we'll get past that final qualifying round and in with the big boys. It never happened.

Fair play to Shams, but their big payday has come about through the luck of the draw. They could have as easily been rewarded for their heroics by a match against Buducnost Podgorica, Spartak Zlatibor Voda or Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. The European dream is a chimera.

Because, looking at the panic-stricken way Bohemians reacted to their drubbing in the valleys, you couldn't help feeling that this was not solely due to the humiliation of being hammered by a small club who sound more like a girl group than a football team. It looked very much as though Bohs had been banking on a European run to help them financially. The gamble has failed.

And it's not the only European gamble which hasn't paid off for Irish soccer. The switch to summer football, which has meant that the league must seek publicity at the height of the GAA season, instead of during the winter when the papers are full of rugby because there's nothing else on, was justified on the grounds of improved performances in UEFA competitions. It doesn't look so clever now.

Good luck to Shams. But, if the end result of their good fortune is that other clubs spend money they don't have to chase the European dream, it might have been better if Tommy Stewart had hit the post in the 70th minute on Thursday .

Sunday Independent

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